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Ordinary Dancers  : :  Sheila Newbery

Sheila Newbery

Photography is an art that embraces instantaneity: a photographic portrait draws our attention not only to an individual, but also to the moment of its making. We’re always thinking about the two people involved in the enterprise: the photographer and the subject. How the gap or divide between these two will be bridged is in a sense the real subject matter — the essential tension — of the photographic portrait.

Viewers often conceive of this tension as a potential narrative: Tell us about the story behind this portrait. It’s a common request. And it is a subtle, truly curious thing that for all its mechanical objectivity and technical ease (as compared to painting, say), photography tends to plunge portraitist and subject even more deeply and elusively into the psychology of the encounter. How that encounter will bear on the ensuing image is difficult to predict.

Great photographic portraits may invite speculation, but it is misleading to try to establish any direct correspondence between the story (real or imagined) of that moment and the presence that meets the viewer. There is a disjunction. I think the pathos we sometimes feel in looking at portrait photographs arises from our sense of this gulf — from the ghost of the story that attaches itself to the moment of exposure.

Ordinary Dancers is a series that takes contact between individuals as a starting point, a given. The dancers aren’t professionals, they’re ordinary people, yet when I watch them, I’m moved by their attitudes, the essential gentleness of their motions; and I imagine that dancing is the closest one may come to a physical state of grace. Dancing is both an intimate and a social act: it’s about immersion in the enveloping qualities of music, rhythm and motion. The needs it meets are primal.

In a sense, these photographs are the antithesis of portraiture: in portraits we look for minute muscular inflections, particularly in a face. You won’t find that in these dancers. Their larger patterns of movement actually relieve the face of its telegraphic obligations, and the look of abstraction we often see on them is one of relaxation. The calm imparts an archaic aspect to the figures, linking them in my mind to much older, representations of dancers: those from urns, frescos, or codexes.

Meet Sheila Newbery
Artist's Reception
Saturday, January 16th
3 to 5pm
open to the public, free of charge, accessible

Sheila Newbery

Ordinary Dancers
and Selected Portraits

January 16 through February 27, 2010
Artist's Reception
Saturday, January 16th 3 to 5pm

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About Sheila Newbery

A self-taught photographer, I’ve long had a keen interest in portraiture. I took a degree in art history in college, and my first job after graduating was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York—I worked in the American Paintings Department, all the way at the back of the museum. To get there, I’d go through the European paintings galleries. I’m still haunted by a picture I saw there daily: Velasquez’ Juan de Pareja, a portrait that speaks eloquently
of the mystery of individual presence embodied in paint.

I remain devoted to film photography and use a range of cameras to do my work: 35mm, medium format, an antique 5 x 7 Kodak Century View and an 8 x10 Deardorff view camera.

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